Cop camera cover-up clears Assembly

Legislation giving law enforcement officers access to body-worn camera (BWC) footage before filing incident reports cleared the full Assembly on Thursday, 71-1-0.

The measure is sponsored by Assembly members Shanique Speight (D-Essex), Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), Annette Chapparo (D-Hudson), Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), and Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer, Middlesex).

Speight, the bill’s primary sponsor, is an Essex County sheriff’s officer who once operated a child care center that was shut down by city inspectors that found unsafe conditions at the facility, Happy Hands Day Care Learning Center.

Speight says giving law enforcement officers access to video will ensure more accurate reporting but critics argue it will help crooked cops cover-up misconduct by enabling them to fudge details with less risk of exposure.

Current law prohibits a law enforcement officer from reviewing or receiving an accounting of certain BWC recordings before creating any required initial reports, statements, and interviews regarding the recorded event.

Experts suggest that accuracy would be increased by writing a report first, to avoid influencing an officer’s memory, and potentially augmenting the report after watching the video.

From a police accountability perspective, when police used force inappropriately or where there is a discrepancy between accounts, permitting an officer to view the video before making a statement might allow the statement to be tailored to fit the evidence.

This is considered a check on police misconduct that is among the principal reasons for employing BWCs.

The sponsors issued this statement on the bill: “Law enforcement officers may respond to a number of emergency calls a day and, many times it is impossible to complete all reports in one day. Allowing the body camera footage to be viewed prior to filing a report is another tool that will help ensure accuracy and continued transparency in police reporting."

"This doesn’t mean the body camera footage can’t be viewed after the report is submitted or even not viewed at all. There are also clear instances—discharging of a firearm or use of police force resulting in death— when the footage cannot be viewed by an officer," said the statement. "This legislation gives law enforcement officers the option to use the video to help with filing reports for everyday calls such as when they are simply helping people connect to different resources.”

BWCs for police have been getting substantial publicity lately. In national protests spurred by the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police officers, activists and families are calling for greater police accountability.

Meanwhile, some police want proof of their perspective in a tense situation to avoid what they see as unfair blame.

The increasing frequency of bystander cell phone video contributes to the public demand for video evidence of police encounters.

However, the existence of BWC video calls into play a complex series of questions about privacy, surveillance, and access to the footage.

The bill (A-5864) will provide law enforcement officers with an affirmative right to review or receive an accounting of certain BWC recordings prior to creating any required initial reports, statements, and interviews regarding the recorded event, except if the recording contains images involving:

(1) an encounter about which a complaint has been registered by a subject of the body-worn camera recording;

(2) the use of police force resulting in death or serious bodily injury;

(3) the discharge of a firearm by a law enforcement officer;

(4) the death of a person while in police custody; or

(5) an incident that is the subject of an internal affairs complaint.

After a multi-year period characterized by high profile, often tragic police-civilian encounters, many advocates – and law enforcement agencies – have embraced body-worn cameras as a tool to increase accountability while providing proof of police perspective in tense situations.

Opponents of the measure include the state public defender’s office, ACLU-NJ and Salvation and Social Justice.

They said the original law prohibited prior review of camera footage for good reason.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last month apparently agreed when he issued a directive preventing officers from watching the videos until after completing their reports.

“Science tells us that if you watch a videotape, it taints your memory,” said Jennifer Sellitti, communications director for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender.

Karen Thompson, an ACLU-NJ attorney, said BWCs give an incomplete “snapshot” of what happened at the scene of an incident.

“There are things that are outside the frame of that camera. There are things to the left, there are things to the right, there are things above, there are people around that we don’t see. So, there are opportunities there to lose all of that extra information,” said Thompson.

“There are facts that are being shown by the camera, but there are other facts that are also being left out,” said Thompson. “So the camera cannot be used to replace the experience of the police officer, what the police officer was motivated by, the probable cause to stop, all sorts of reasons for why the interaction occurred in the first place that cannot be captured by a camera."

"State of mind and experience cannot be captured by video, that is all in the officers’ experience — their eyes, their brain — and that is the experience that we must document first. And again, that can be supplemented after the fact,” said Thompson.

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